Film controversies can be silly or even a welcome distraction from more serious news. I continue to giggle, for example, when anyone brings up “category fraud,” the practice of running a lead actor in a supporting category at the Oscars to give them a better chance of winning. Honestly. Who cares?
The latest film controversy, however, is no laughing matter. You’ve probably heard by now about the Netflix release “Cuties,” a French film about an 11-year-old girl who joins a dance troupe that models their routines after hip-hop videos, complete with sexualized dance moves and skimpy clothing. It’s a provocative film that was surely expected to court controversy, but the response has been disturbingly intense. “Cuties” has been criticized by multiple corners of the internet. Members of Congress, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, have called for Netflix to be investigated for publishing child pornography. Critics who praised the film have been accused of supporting pedophilies. I published a positive review at another outlet and received a death threat.
There is room for disagreement on controversial art. But what’s so frustrating about this current controversy is that so few of the film’s detractors seem to have watched the film. I’ve tried engaging with these folks online, and the typical response is, “Why would I watch child pornography?” Well, the short answer is that “Cuties” is not child pornography. Not even close. In fact, it takes the sexualization of children far more seriously than any film ever made. It’s not the film its detractors think it is. It’s almost the film they want it to be.
If you watch “Cuties,” you’ll see a thoughtful and balanced film about an adolescent girl who becomes disillusioned with her family’s values and makes a foray into the adult world that eventually goes too far. It’s a pretty conventional narrative – the stuff of most coming-of-age movies – but the details have a sense of urgency. The protagonist Amy is the child of Muslim immigrants in Paris. Her father is taking a second wife, a practice that is permitted in her community but takes an apparent toll on her mother.
She becomes obsessed with a gang of girls at her schools who dance provocatively, not for the shock value but because she has never felt so free with her body. She studies them, carefully approaches them, and eventually becomes one of them. The girls practice for the big talent show in private, so there are no adults there to stop them. Or to be our guide. First-time director Maïmouna Doucouré films them as if they are in one of the hip-hop videos they’re emulating. It’s difficult to watch, and that’s the point. “Cuties” confronts viewers with the adultification and sexualization of young women in a way that is uncomfortable and impossible to dismiss. That’s what it’s aiming to do, and it succeeds.
One wonders, then, why “Cuties” has become such a firestorm, and not, say, “Toddlers and Tiaras,” a reality series that ran on TLC from 2009-2013 and routinely featured toddlers in heavy make-up and two-piece swimsuits. One contestant wore fake breasts to impersonate Dolly Parton. Another smoked fake cigarettes onstage. “Toddlers and Tiaras” received some criticism for its adultification of children but nothing like what “Cuties,” and those who have supported it, are receiving. What has changed? It’s hard not to connect the most ardent critics of the film, especially those who haven’t seen it, with the rise of Q’Anon, a conspiracy-driven cabal of right-wing activists who believe Democrats in the media engage in bizarre ritualistic abuse of children. The blind hysteria points to adults who are disconnected from reality.
Of course, not all critics of the film are wearing tinfoil hats. Some have argued that “Cuties” is too ambiguous and doesn’t condemn the girls’ behavior enough. That’s fine, if you want your art to be prescriptive. Others have wondered aloud if the young actresses themselves weren’t being exploited in the same manner the film condemns. To be clear, neither the actresses, nor their parents, nor the child psychologist who was on set during filming has expressed any concern about this. But it’s a discussion worth having.
Controversial art like “Cuties” is intended to provoke discussion. The real sticking point here is that so many of the film’s critics refuse to see it. The minimum requirement for critiquing a work of art is to actually engage with it first. Otherwise, you’re just weaponizing art to fit for your politics, which will never lead to a productive conversation. My advice? See “Cuties.” Then you can tell me why you wish you hadn’t.